KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) – It is fair to say that Taiwan’s High Speed Rail (HSR) network can, broadly speaking, be judged a success.
After years of losses, the HSR is now finally profitable. Meanwhile, it has successfully linked the majority of Taiwan’s major urban centers, reduced travel time and the need for environmentally damaging domestic flights, and offered a fantastic level of service that wows tourists and locals alike.
In 2015, new stations were added at Changhua, Miaoli, and Yunlin, connecting even more of the country, and for years there has been talk of extending the line north and the south. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Transportation and Communications confirmed that there were ongoing discussions about extending the HSR line to Yilan.
This proposal does make some sense. A large volume of people travel between Taipei and Yilan, especially on weekends, and congestion on the Chiang Wei-shui Memorial Freeway (Freeway No. 5) is a major issue, especially in the Xueshan Tunnel (雪山隧道).
It could also open up the prospect of a further extension to Hualien and its hugely popular Taroko Gorge in the future. However, such a project would be a major feat of engineering and the costs would be significant.
It is perhaps, therefore, not such a huge surprise that the extension announced by the government this week is not eastward to Yilan but rather southward from Kaohsiung to Pingtung.
The perils of extending to Pingtung
This suggestion has also been around for some time. Indeed, it was an electoral pledge of Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) during her unsuccessful first presidential bid in 2012.
The concern is that, with another election just around the corner, to announce this extension now looks a lot like playing politics with the public purse. Details were thin on the ground and cost estimates vague, which should immediately raise a red flag.
Few would argue against extending the HSR if there was an obvious benefit in doing so. But if there is a benefit in expanding it to Pingtung, it has not yet made itself known and there is no new cost-benefit report accompanying this announcement; without one, the project should not proceed.
Pingtung City has a population of just over 200,000 people, and in Pingtung County there are a shade over 800,000 people. A previous assessment of the viability of a Pingtung extension suggested that the line would attract around 5,000 daily users.
It would shave a little time off journeys from the north of the island to Kenting and Taitung, perhaps half an hour or even more. But with costs estimated in 2017 at between NT$62 billion and NT$75 billion (around US$2.4 billion), is this really worth the investment?
Pingtung City is actually right in the northeast corner of Pingtung County. It is telling that an action group which has been lobbying for the HSR’s extension to Pingtung County has condemned this plan in no uncertain terms, saying it would be a disaster for the region.
The same report projected that the line to Pingtung would then lose as much as NT$200 million (US$6.4 million) a year. Having finally become profitable, the HSR could be plunged back in the red for years for the sake of 5,000 commuters and half an hour of vacationers' time.
In any case, it’s not like there is a shortage of links between Pingtung and Kaohsiung. Kaohsiung’s newly tunneled TSR line, which is now electrified, has shortened the journey from Kaohsiung's Zuoying Station to Pingtung to just 35 minutes.
The city is also linked via Highway 3 and Highway 10, Expressway 88, and Highway Route 1 over the impressive new Kaoping Bridge. With the new rail connection now in place as well, this appears to be more than sufficient. Congestion is not nearly as much of an issue here as it is between Taipei and Yilan.
The impact on Kaohsiung
Another bone of contention about the proposal is how the line will traverse Kaohsiung City.
Four proposed routes are currently under consideration. Remarkably, two of these routes miss Kaohsiung altogether, while a third bypasses the city’s rapidly growing international airport.
If the costs for this project can be justified and it does proceed, it would seem absurd not to take the opportunity to connect it to Taiwan’s third-largest city.
In Taipei, you have the choice of joining the HSR network at Nangang, Taipei Main Station, or Banqiao. It would make sense to add connections at Kaohsiung’s spectacular new Main Station and the airport too.
There is also the issue of disruption. The people of Kaohsiung have already put up with a decade of chaos as the TSR rail network was being tunneled through the city.
If this was repeated, public patience would be tested to the breaking point. An acceptable solution would have to be found.
The KMT has already suggested that if Kaohsiung City is bypassed, it will be a case of a DPP government punishing Kaohsiung's KMT mayor. This seems unlikely, though, as polls all suggest Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) is likely to be a one-term mayor at best, while this project would take years longer to complete.
But the broader point is that an HSR extension shouldn’t be a political project. It must be conceived, planned, and built with the national interest in mind, not for short-term political benefits for a party.
At the moment, this project looks suspiciously like the latter rather than the former. And ultimately, that is in no one’s interest, not least Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP.